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04 May 2019

Cannabis Is Reaching its Me Too Moment

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I was just listening to the Brave New Weed podcast discussion (Episode 51) about the wrangling going on in New York regarding cannabis legalization. Two different threads in the discussion peaked my interest. One thread discussed the idea that many people in New York – especially in upstate counties – are against legalization of cannabis; this is the Just Say No To Drugs contingent. Politicians will be reluctant to legalize cannabis, if they think this contingent is large enough, and if politicians will lose their vote by voting for legalization. Another thread discussed how big cannabis companies in New York submitted a proposal containing a clause that outlawed homegrown cannabis. This was a clear power-grab by established cannabis companies.

As I listened to the discussion, and these two threads in particular, it occurred to me that cannabis is reaching its Me Too moment. 

Before the Me Too Movement had gained momentum, there had always been grassroots movements against sexual harassment. I consider the issue of sexual harassment to be a component of the fight for equality, which has been brewing probably since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. Yet, even with the presence of grassroots movements, companies had always gained more by paying off accusers – even if it meant a bit of bad press – than by firing powerful people in the company for engaging in harassment. The fact was the negative costs to companies of any social condemnation paled in comparison to the benefits of retaining valuable employees. 

The Me Too Movement changed all this. Society had finally arrived at a point in which social condemnation – public shaming – of sexual harassment was more consequential to firms (leading to loss of business, loss of political support, etc.) than the benefits of retaining powerful employees. 

We’re arriving at an analogous point with cannabis. Grassroots support for legalization is becoming more powerful than the forces preventing it. Those opposing cannabis legalization include:

  • Individuals opposed to cannabis legalization
  • Industries with much to lose from cannabis legalization: Big Pharma, Big Alcohol, Big Tobacco, and Law Enforcement 
  • Politicians who cater to individual and/or Big Industry opposition to cannabis legalization

As with the Me Too Movement, for cannabis legalization to prevail, society must reach a tipping point. This is the point where grassroots social forces supporting cannabis create greater benefits to people in power from legalization than those in power gain from prohibition. While traditional Big Industry can afford more in lobbying to politicians to oppose legalization, having more money doesn’t benefit politicians who are voted out of office for not upholding the will of the majority of the public. 

At the same time as grassroots support is growing, the winds of industry are changing: Big Cannabis is becoming big enough to make a dent in political lobbying, relative to that of more traditional Big Industry. It won’t be long until the combined forces of grassroots and Big Cannabis support for legalization outweigh the combined forces of individual and traditional Big Industry opposition.

When that time comes, cannabis will become legalized.

Yet, as much as we might want the grassroots activists who have labored so long and hard for cannabis legalization to be the ones to benefit most, it generally does not turn out that way. When there’s a change of regime, the ones who gain power in the new regime are not necessarily those who had worked hardest for that change. Rather, the ones who achieve power in the new regime are generally those who are most adept at seizing and retaining power. In the case of cannabis, those people who have fought long and hard for legalization are diffuse in nature: tens of thousands of small growers, compassionate care workers, and cannabis educators. In contrast, Big Cannabis comprise a small, yet concentrated, group that is much more prepared to shape laws and regulations in their favor. If Big Cannabis prevails, we will end up with severe limits to competition, hugely benefitting Big Cannabis at the great expense of users. 

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